Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

In 1889-90 the French bookseller Charles Hirsch supplied Oscar Wilde with several "obscene little books bearing an Amsterdam imprint." Wilde evidently thought these too crude, and returned them to the shop, but he continued to order other books of a "socratic" nature, mostly in French, as well as the works of such writers as Zola and Maupassant. Toward the end of 1890, Wilde brought into the shop a small, carefully sealed package, saying "A friend of mine will call for this manuscript and will show you my card."

A few days later a young man called for the package and took it away. He later returned it, saying "Please give this to one of our friends who will call for it on behalf of the same person." This intrigue was carried on by several other callers, until one day the package was returned unwrapped. Hirsch could not forbear to examine it, and discovered one of the most outspoken gay novels of any era until recent times, titled Teleny.

Hirsch felt that Teleny was "a profoundly interesting work," and told his friend C.R. Dawes that the book was undoubtedly written in collaboration by several of Wilde's friends, under the supervision of Wilde himself. He returned the manuscript to Wilde, and in 1893 it was published in 200 copies as Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal, by Leonard Smithers (who had also published Aleister Crowley's White Stains). And so the published version in due course found its way back into Hirsch's shop for distribution.

There seems to be no reason to doubt the general truth of Hirsch's claim that Oscar wilde was a major influence upon the composition of Teleny, but among its unequal passages written "by several hands" there are none that we can pick out as being obviously written by Wilde. The dispute over its authorship is fraught with difficulties, particularly since it was such a startlingly new kind of book for its time. Literary arguments about "internal evidence" and "similar style" are dubious even at the best of times. The question is this: Is this how Oscar Wilde would have written if he had decided to write a "pornographic" novel?

The novel certainly has none of the wit and elegance one associates with Wilde, but this unjustly presupposes that Wilde was always witty, and that he inevitably composed theatrical entertainments. On the contrary, in Wilde's one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, there are a number of descriptive passages which resemble those in Teleny, and it seems not unreasonable to see Wilde's hand at work in the latter.

In Dorian Gray, for example, we frequently find such detailed passages as this:

One afternoon, a month later, Dorian Gray was reclining in a luxurious arm-chair, in the little library of Lord Henry's house in Mayfair. It was, in its way, a very charming room, with its high-panelled wainscoting of olive-stained oak, its cream-coloured frieze and ceiling of raised plasterwork, and its brick-dust felt carpet strewn with silk long-fringed Persian rugs. On a tiny satinwood table stood a statuette by Clodion, and beside it lay a copy of Les Cent Nouvelles, bound for Margaret of Valois by Clovis Eve, and powdered with the gilt daisies that the Queen had selected for her device. Some large blue china jars and parrot-tulips were arranged on the mantel-shelf, and through the small leaded panels of the window streamed the apricot-coloured light of a summer day in London.

Compare this with the description of Teleny's room:

It was a most peculiar room, the walls of which were covered over with some warm, white, soft, quilted stuff, studded all over with frosted silver buttons; the floor was covered with the curly white fleece of white lambs; in the middle of the apartment stood a capacious couch, on which was thrown the skin of a hugh polar bear. Over this single piece of furniture, an old silver lamp — evidently from some Byzantine church or some Eastern synagogue — shed a pale glimmering light, sufficient, however, to light up the dazzling whiteness of this temple of Priapus whose votaries we were. ... In an instant I was not only stark naked, but stretched on the bear-skin, whilst he, standing in front of me, was gloating upon me with famished eyes. ... He dragged me with him into a neighbouring room all covered with thick, soft, and silky carpets, the prevailing tone of which was dull Turkish red. ... We sat down on a soft-cushioned divan, in front of one of those ebony Arab tables all inlaid with coloured ivory and iridescent mother-of- pearl.

Indeed, Dorian Gray, as much as Teleny, is dominated by a profusion of sensuous catalogues, of which the main sensation is that of a womb-like softness, and monochromatic Whistlerian color schemes, and the objects are as exotic as Turkish water-pipes. Both novels are what the late Victorians would call fleshly, and not incapable of having been written by the same hand.

But Teleny includes the underside of life so perversely hinted at in Dorian Gray; its dialogue and action would seem to be very different, but as Wilde did not publish under his name any explicitly sexual passages, there is little chance of comparing this passage from Teleny with any of his known work:

I happened to be lying on some cushions on the couch, which thus elevated me to Teleny's height; he swiftly put my legs on his shoulders, then, bending down his head, he began first to kiss, and then to dart his pointed tongue in the hole of my bum, thrilling me with an ineffable pleasure. Then rising when he had deftly prepared the hole by lubricating it well all round, he tried to press the tip of his phallus into it, but though he pressed hard, still he could not succeed in getting it in.
"Let me moisten it a little, and then it will slip in more easily."
I took it again in my mouth. My tongue rolled deftly all around it. I sucked it down almost to its very root, feeling it up to any little trick, for it was stiff, hard, and frisky.
"Now," said I, "let us enjoy together that pleasure which the gods themselves did not disdain to teach us."
Thereupon the tips of my fingers stretched the edge of my unexplored little pit to their very utmost. It was gaping to receive the huge instrument that presented itself at the orifice.
He once more pressed the glans upon it; the tiny little lips protruded themselves within the gap; the tip worked its way inside, but the pulpy flesh bulged out all around, and the rod was thus arrested in its career.
"I am afraid I am hurting you?" he asked, "had we not better leave it for some other time?"
"Oh, no! it is such a happiness to feel your body entering into mine."
He thrust gently but firmly; the strong muscles of the anus relaxed; the glans was fairly lodged; the skin extended to such a degree that tiny, ruby beads of blood trickled from all around the splitting orifice; still, notwithstanding the way I was torn, the pleasure I felt was much greater than the pain.
He gave a sudden heave. The Rubicon was crossed; the column began to slide softly in; he could begin his pleasurable work.

Even within Teleny itself, there are distinct differences of style between descriptive or narrative passages and those dealing with sexual acts or passions. Partly this may be due to the "various hands" assisting in its composition. But more importantly, it illustrates the difficulty that many writers have in integrating sexual descriptions with their general style. It seems to be impossible to describe sphincter muscles with the same nonchalance or grace with which one describes a sunset or a pretty bonnet. Orgasms are invariably called volcanic, and the literary penis, unlike the other parts of a character's body, too often resembles a mythological icon, a tool rather than an appendage.

Teleny is essentially a collection of homoerotic set-pieces, rather weakly contained within a narrative about an inexperienced young man who falls in love with a worldly-wise gay pianist. This allows for the usual initiation and seduction scenes, but it also widens its focus by including scenes from the homosexual subculture of London, particularly Soho (though in the published version the scene is unconvincingly transposed to Paris). Of particular interest are the portraits of gay men in the trysting-places of a modern Sodom, which include an effeminate man who looks like a woman, a mincing frequenter of cottages, pimps and prostitutes, and a sturdy workman (either a butcher or a smith by trade," "a fine specimen of the male").

There is also an extremely interesting description of a visit to a "masked ball" in a gay artist's studio, where the "entertainments" come more probably from the realm of fantasy than any other part of the book. For example, we are treated to the sight of a youth doing squats upon a large dildo affixed to a base on the floor, and the scene ends most dreadfully with a man inserting a very large vase into his capacious anus, but the neck of the bottle breaks off inside him and he bleeds to death.

This would seem to represent the wages of sin, and there are occasional references to the fire and brimstone that destroyed the Cities of the Plain. This is all part and parcel of the decadent atmosphere, especially when the novel is concerned with others besides the narrator Des Grieux and Teleny. The subtitle "The Reverse of the Medal" is equivalent to "the other side of the coin," a reference to that strange love on the other side of the moon that dares not speak its name.

On the other hand, the novel is noteworthy for its justifications of homosexuality. Though not very illustrative of gay pride, many people even today justify themselves with statements similar to those in the novel: "I know that I was born a sodomite, the fault is my constitution's not mine own." It is with some amusement that we hear of that age-old justification that lingers on today, that the "crime against nature" has been practiced "not only by the very gods themselves, but by all the greatest men of olden times." Oscar Wilde said something very similar during his trial at the Old Bailey. Des Grieux nevertheless "yielded to my destiny and encompassed my joy"; his love for Teleny finally overcomes his earlier feelings of guilt, and in due course, "Far from being ashamed of my crime, I felt that I should like to proclaim it to the world." Despite this affirmation of homosexuality, the ending of the novel resembles the fiction of the 1950s: Teleny is unfaithful with a woman, and commits suicide. A pointless but conventional ending for gay novels.

As for the sex itself, it is so pleasurable that Des Grieux would willingly be damned for it:

"The most skilled of prostitutes could never give such thrilling sensations as those which I felt with my lover, for the tweake is, after all, only acquainted with the pleasures she herself has felt; whilst the keener emotions, not being those of her sex, are unknown to and cannot be imagined by her.
"Likewise, no man is ever able to madden a woman with such overpowering lust as another tribade [lesbian] can, for she alone knows how to tickle her on the right spot just in the nick of time. The quintessence of bliss can, therefore, only be enjoyed by beings of the same sex."

The sexual passages tend to emphasize frottage or mutual rubbing, which we know that Wilde himself preferred, rather than oral or anal penetration. On the whole they are rather awkward and dated:

Such intensity of delight could not, however, last very long; a few almost unwilling contractions of the sphincter brandled the phallus, and then the first brunt was over; I thrust in with might and main, I wallowed on him; my breath came thickly; I panted, I sighed, I groaned. The thick burning fluid was spouted out slowly and at long intervals. As I rubbed myself against him, he underwent all the sensations I was feeling; for I was hardly drained of the last drop before I was likewise bathed in his own seething sperm.

But such passages are in large part the raison d'être of the novel, and it is a great disservice to British readers especially that unexpurgated editions of the novel have been unavailable to them until recent times. The original edition is of course scarce, though there is a copy in the British Library. An edition introduced by H. Montgomery Hyde was published in the UK by Icon Books in 1966, in paperback. This edition was edited by Martin Secker, who simply expurgated all the erotic passages: so much so, that I find it difficult at times to make sense out of the extant narrative. In America, an unexpurgated edition was published in North Hollywood by Brandon House in 1967. An unexpurgated edition was finally published in England by Gay Men's Press in the 1970s, and it is now easily available, very inexpensively, in a 1995 edition by Wordsworth Books.

From the sociological perspective, Teleny is somewhat a homosexual equivalent to My Secret Life; it is an extremely valuable document of Victorian homosexuals' attitudes toward themselves, and a reasonably accurate (though literary) description of Victorian homosexual behavior and nightlife. From the aesthetic standpoint, it fully merits Smithers' praise as being "the most powerful and cleverly written erotic Romance which has appeared in the English language" during that era, "a book which will certainly rank as the chief of its class."


Copyright © 1977, 1998 Rictor Norton
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal", A History of Homoerotica, 1974, 1998; updated 19 January 2007 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/teleny.htm>.


Return to A History of Homoerotica

Return to Gay History and Literature